The Value of Interruptions

This post originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

What’s an interruption worth? Many people state that at-work interruptions are time-wasters, and they may be right. But then again, it might depend. Does every interruption cost, or can some be beneficial? It is really up to each individual to decide, and then to control the situation accordingly.

For example, for people who really need time to focus on work, an interruption always seems costly. Colleagues poke their heads in and ask “got a moment?” and emails arrive seemingly at random. In these situations the average working human is put on the defensive, trying to protect what little time is available from attack. Although such terminology may sound harsh, this is actually what is happening: a person’s time is placed under siege.

If self-directed, focus time is indeed needed, then it must be protected in advance. This can best be done by managing the expectations of interrupters themselves.

A proven technique for deflecting interruption is to announce both the start-time and the end-time of a focus period. This can be communicated online in a group email, posted as an online calendar entry, announced at team meetings, included in voicemail greetings and “out-of-office” email autoreplies and printed out as a sign posted on the outside of the office door or cubicle wall: “I am in focus time, back at 11:00.”

The secret here is to give co-workers and customers a comfortable understanding of when they will actually be able to get the attention they seek. When there is no other frame of reference, other than the phrase “I’m kind of busy right now,” a visitor tends to take matters into his/her own hands and push through. However, if potential interrupters are given an awareness of when the door will re-open, they are more likely to shape their actions around this fact. Successful interruption deflectors, then, basically set up “times of availability.”

But it is also important to allow a mild breaking of the rule, as in “if a question can be asked and answered in under a minute, then I will take your interruption.” This is done to help avoid forcing others to spin their wheels, waiting for the focus period to end. In short, if a query can be answered in under a minute, come on in. Otherwise comeback at 11:00.

When defined start- and end-times are scheduled and explained, in a positive tone of voice, they stand a better chance of being accepted and respected by a team. The benefits of establishing such a fortress of time include being able to work both interruption-free and guilt-free, certainly, but also there is the benefit of eliminating non-emergencies from filling the plate. Very often an individual will interrupt simply to pursue the path of least resistance; however, being asked to come back later might actually result in the interrupter either a.) Doing the task themselves; b.) Asking a different person to do the task; or c.) Becoming involved in something else, and forgetting to come back at all. Thirdly, a defined visiting time teaches/encourages colleagues to get all their ducks in a row before coming back to speak. It helps reinforce the idea that socializing is welcome in common office space, but that a private office/cubicle is for work. Time, after all, is money.

However, there may also be strategic benefits to allowing interruptions. To take advantage of the opportunity to chat with a colleague might result in a greater, more lucrative or more satisfying work assignment; or it might serve to strengthen bonds between people – relationships that may have great payoff in the future, or it might simply offset the need for a scheduled meeting at a later time. Interruptions from direct reports also allow for better ground-level understanding of employees’ concerns or ideas – an excellent leadership move, and a fulfillment of the open-door policy.

When an interruption stands to deliver greater value than isolation, then the interruption should be factored in as part of the work window. That’s the key point: factoring them in. Traditionally people forget to do this. If, for example, a person assigns 60 minutes to get a report finished, and an interruption steals away 20 of those minutes, then focus time is lost and must be caught up somehow. This results in a measure of mental stress, which in turn trims back on mental capacity due to the way in which the human body and brain always shut down portions of higher-level thinking when urgency and worry appear. This means that the completion of the report will take far longer.

However, if a person were to schedule 90 minutes to complete a 60-minute task, budgeting for acceptable interruptions, then the sense of control is retained. A person in this situation can allow an interruption, and with practice, can not only benefit from a strengthened interpersonal relationship, but can use that sense of control to draw the conversation to a timely close, and then return to work with the same level of focus as they enjoyed prior to the interruption. This is because throughout this exercise, control is retained. The interruption is not stealing productive time, since it has been budgeted for.

This is the pragmatic reality of work. The optimist inside each person says, “a 60-minute task should take 60 minutes”; but the pragmatist says, “it is better to expect to get it done in 90 minutes, and roll with the punches.